Piltdown Man: The Hoax That Disproves Evolution?
In early 1912, an amateur archaeologist named Charles Dawson came across an astounding find while searching for fossils in the Piltdown quarry of Sussex, England. Dawson had a knack for finding remarkable antiquities in unexpected locations - a reputation that had earned him the nickname "The Wizard of Sussex." This time, Dawson had uncovered the most significant discovery of his career - the skull fragments of what appeared to be a primitive hominid, estimated to be around five hundred thousand to one million years old.
Dawson then contacted Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, a close friend and keeper of the Natural History Department of the British Museum - the recipient of many of Dawson's archaeological finds. Woodward and Dawson quickly organized a excavation team to search the quarry for additional fossils. Later that summer the team found them: more skull fragments and a jawbone with teeth intact. The team even found a primitive tool sculpted from an elephant bone - a tool that looked remarkably like a cricket bat.
The earliest primitive man had been found in the British Isles, and he was a true cricket-playing Englishman.
When the discovery was announced in the popular press later that year, it was quite a sensation for the lay public and the British archaeological community. Over the preceding century, a French paleontologist had found Cro-Magnon man, a Belgian paleontologist had discovered Neanderthal fossils, and a Dutch anthropologist had discovered Java Man. British scientists finally had their early hominid - Eoanthropus dawsoni, popularly known as Piltdown Man.
The Puzzling Puzzle Piece
At first, the Eoanthropus dawsoni specimen seemed to be just the "missing link" paleontologists had been looking for - a perfect cross between ape and man. It perfectly matched the prevailing hypothesis of early human origins - that we'd evolved larger brains first, then our jaw size had caught up later as our diet became omnivorous. It also indicated that humans had evolved in Europe rather than Africa - a finding that satisfied the more Eurocentric anthropologists of the early 20th Century.
Although there were a few skeptics early on, many anthropologists and paleontologists accepted the find as genuine. Piltdown Man was cited in hundreds of articles, lectures, and dissertations in the decades after its discovery, and was introduced as evidence in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.
As time went by and early hominid fossils such as Australopithecus and Homo erectus were discovered, Piltdown Man became more and more of an oddity. Hominid skulls found in Asia and South Africa had skulls that were more ape-like and jaws that were more like those of modern humans. The tree of human ancestry no longer made sense with Eoanthropus dawsoni, with its human-like skull and ape-like jaw, as one of the branches. In the 1930s and 1940s, papers on human evolution began leaving out mentions of Piltdown Man entirely. Natural history museums began omitting references to Piltdown Man from their human evolution exhibits.
In 1949, the Piltdown Man skull fragments were tested using the newly-developed fluorine dating method. Over time, buried bones absorb fluorine from the soil, so the fluorine content of an excavated fossil can provide an estimate of how old it is. The Piltdown Man fragments contained only trace amounts of fluorine, not nearly enough to be a half-million year old fossil. Given its fluorine content, the Piltdown skull had to be fewer than 50,000 years old. This made it even more of an oddity - what was a hominid with such an ape-like jaw doing in prehistoric England at the end of the Ice Age?
In 1953, anthropologist Dr. Joseph S. Weiner and some paleontologist colleagues were discussing the oddity of Piltdown Man in the context of human evolution when an interesting idea was raised. If no natural cause could be found to explain the unusual Piltdown anatomy, perhaps there was an artificial one - the specimens had been tampered with somehow. Suddenly, Eoanthropus dawsoni began to make sense once again - not as an evolutionary outlier, but as a case of deliberate fraud.
Along with anatomist Sir Wilfrid Le Gros Clark and geologist Kenneth Oakley, Weiner obtained the original Piltdown fossils and subjected them to thorough forensic scrutiny. It didn't take long for the fraud to be exposed once the fossils were analyzed under a microscope.
The Piltdown Man's skull was, in fact, the 500-year-old skull fragments of a human, the jaw of a chimpanzee, and teeth from an ancient elephant and hippopotamus. The teeth had been carefully filed down to appear evenly worn, and the bones had been treated with chromic acid and stained with an iron solution so that they would appear ancient. Additionally, the chimpanzee jawbone had been broken near the joint in order to conceal the fact that it didn't fit the human skull. Moreover, examination of some of Charles Dawson's other finds has revealed many other forgeries, plagiarisms, and otherwise questionable antiquities.
Books on the Piltdown Man Hoax
The Piltdown Hoax: Evolution's Achilles Heel?
The Piltdown Man hoax is frequently cited by creationists and other science deniers as proof of the fallibility of science. They argue that the case proves that scientists are eager to accept even falsified evidence for evolution in order to prove the Biblical creation myth wrong.
This argument conveniently fails to recognize that it was scientists, not creationists, who exposed the hoax. This is an illustration of the scientific method at work - the Piltdown fossils amounted to a hypothesis about human evolution. Scientists investigated this hypothesis and falsified it by the weight of the evidence - in this case evidence of tampering and deliberate deception.
The fact that it took more than four decades for the hoax to be exposed is a bit of an embarrassment for science, but understandable given the limited technology and techniques available at the time of Piltdown Man's discovery. The case also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of confirmation bias: Piltdown Man supported the prevailing hypothesis about the course of human evolution, so early finds of Australopithecus fossils were not given the attention they merited since they didn't fit the Piltdown narrative.
Could There Be Another Piltdown Man Hoax Today?
Today, fossil-collecting is a much more professional and rigorous endeavor. Fossil finds are extensively documented with photographs, GPS readings, and data logs well before they are removed from the site. Professional excavation teams include experts from multiple disciplines to assist in correctly identifying and interpreting the findings. Radiometric dating techniques can date a fossil's age with precision unheard of in 1912. And museums have much stricter standards and codes of conduct regarding the acquisition of antiquities and fossils.
Even with better standards and practices, however, science is a human endeavor. Scientists are not immune to human error, from miscalculations to misinterpretations to clinging to a discredited idea to outright dishonesty. Scientific fraud is rare, but it does happen. Since the peer-review process is better equipped to spot errors of analysis or methodology, a technically-correct study with completely fabricated data can occasionally make it into a prestigious journal - and has happened on several occasions.
However, the misbehavior of a few bad scientists does not discredit the good and valid work of the rest. Similarly, Piltdown Man does not disprove evolution. It illustrates how good science ultimately prevails over false ideas.
Sources and Further Information
- Piltdown Man: British archaeology's greatest hoax | Robin McKie | Science | The Observer
When revealed as a fraud, several eminent men were put in the frame. Robin McKie meets the scientists who aim to put an end to the mystery
- Talk Origins: Piltdown Man
Piltdown man is one of the most famous frauds in the history of science. In 1912 Charles Dawson discovered the first of two skulls found in the Piltdown quarry in Sussex, England, skulls of an apparently primitive hominid, an ancestor of man.
- Natural History Museum: Piltdown man
You are about to embark on a journey back to 1912, to study the bones of Piltdown Man as scientists did then. At each point in your journey, you will consider how scientists would interpret the same fossils today. Could we be fooled again?
- Charles Dawson: 'The Piltdown faker'
Archaeologist Dr Miles Russell explains why the hoaxer behind Piltdown Man had to be Lewes solicitor Charles Dawson.
- Piltdown Hoax - The Skeptic's Dictionary
Piltdown was an archaeological site in England where in 1908 and 1912 fossil remains of human, ape and other mammals were found. In 1913 at a nearby site was found an ape's jaw with a canine tooth worn down like a human's.
- Piltdown Man
Kenneth F. Oakley and J. S. Weiner. American Scientist October 1955.
- Basic Field Preparation Tips (PDF)
Marilyn Fox, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, 2009